Mind the Gap

Hong Kong’s wealthy confuse social responsibilities with social status

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2016, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 10:26am

Last month, Mark Zuckerberg donated US$45 billion to commemorate the birth of his daughter and as a promise to make a better future and world for her. He plans to give away 99 per cent of the Facebook stock he owns over the course of his life.

He and his wife want to further the mission of advancing human potential and promoting equality by means of philanthropic, public advocacy, and other activities for the public good.

He is drawing attention to the challenge of how to handle the sudden acquisition of vast sums of wealth and how to manage and give it away. Luckily, his youth will allow him enough time to not only give it away, but to learn about what causes suit his beliefs and personal values.

Bill Gates needed more than a decade of globetrotting to figure out that the world’s most impoverished people benefited the most from clean water and sanitation rather than internet access. That is part of the maturity process of billionaires who are used to defining their own world rather than being forced to face up to the realities of alleviating poverty.

READ MORE: Why are Hong Kong’s philanthropists so blinkered?

Private bankers estimate that most individuals who attain new wealth go through a five-year luxurious lifestyle phase of self-indulgence. Then they seek some form of meaningful activity in their life. In Hong Kong, besides the flaunting of wealth-in-your-face phenomena, the city’s wealthy confuse their social responsibilities with social status.

Here’s the difference between charity and philanthropy. If you donate money to the Salvation Army, you are engaged in an act of charity. If you stand on the street and hand out US$100 bills then you are doing philanthropy. Philanthropy means you are running a dedicated business focussed on solving social problems.

Hong Kong’s wealthy families cling furiously to their fortunes, leaving everything to their descendants. It assures the city of an idle caste that is completely out of touch with the issues that confront Hong Kong society and the rest of the world. Their lifetsyles and inaction impoverish all of us. The traditional approach to giving – leaving it to old age or death – is becoming irrelevant, as it should.

It produces a fake philanthropy – hollow gestures of little substance – richly documented by Hong Kong’s society magazines. These magazines, a waste of trees, whose narrow readership could be served by a Facebook or Instagram group in any case, are an indication of the vain and backward state of charity and philanthropy in Hong Kong.

Buying a few tables at fancy events or balls and calling yourself a philanthropist is supposed to pass as prestige and caring for society. Success in Hong Kong has been so perverted that it is now symbolised by which family you are born or married into to – not what you invent or create.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker